Sketch-Bridging the Past and Present to Craft the Future: First Response

Published on 28 March 2024 03:14 PM
By Alex Hale
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We need drawing: a response to Elisa Broccoli’s artwork

‘Drawing is a feeling, an attitude that is betrayed in its handling as much as in the materials used’. (Emma Dexter, Vitamin D, 2005, 6).

It is with great pleasure to see drawing being applied to ‘bridge the boundaries between archaeology and heritage knowledge production or for explicitly fostering collaborative critical thinking’ (Broccoli et al 2023). The essay and hence my response highlights the exciting possibilities that drawing brings to working co-creatively, across multiple disciplines. In this case the mash-up of archaeology, heritage, multiple participant engagement and drawing has created an object that can be considered a 21st century artefact; a ‘digit-thing’, which is hand-drawn but digitally hosted.

My response attempts to reflect on this example by considering it among the wider body of projects that have applied drawing in similar ways and have contributed to a growing assemblage of digit-things that are part of, but are not yet necessarily considered to be positioned within the archives of our disciplines. In doing so, I aim to explore this type of approach and the resultant digit-things, which contain hand drawn images at their core and create complex manifestations of multiple narratives, mediated through archaeology and heritage projects. Just as an aside, I felt that the either/or sentiment behind Broccoli’s quote belies some of the influence of drawing, to not only bridge disciplines, but bring its own ontology to bear on ways of seeing the world, through past-present encounters.

As I was invited to respond to the essay by Broccoli et al, I suspected it was because I had done a bit of live drawing at various events in Scotland and have a background in archaeology and heritage projects. This proximity initially meant that I re-visited my paper in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology (Hale 2020), in which I discussed a series of evolving live drawing methods at community heritage conferences in Scotland, between 2013 and 2017. This enabled me to reflect on some of the changing impacts that drawing has and continues to have on our recording, interpretation and communication of data and narratives about past lives.

So, to begin I’d like to consider the interesting image, which was produced as part of the broader Narratives of Roman Scotland in the Digital Age project and how it made me think about the other potentials that drawing can bring to posing questions around approaches to multiple pasts. Firstly, I’d like to offer some reflections on the layout of the image, the forms and fonts used and the illustrative vignettes. The use of the central image of Trajan’s column festooned with scenes from Scotland rather than the Dacian wars, which is what is carved on the original in Rome, is a bold choice. But the Romans were bold, or we have tended to portray them as such, with their frontiers, armies on the march and conquering narratives. Is this art imitating life or past lives imitating art?

When presented with Trajan’s column, we are struck by the incredible stone craft involved. This includes the roundels increasing in thickness as they rise up the column to counteract the effects of perspective. Whereas the digital column is somewhat flatter in appearance, I like the use of Scottish imagery such as a crannog representing native settlement and a range of iconic Roman sites and assemblages, along its length. But a little bit more tone around the column would have given it weight and grounded it as the central form. Talking of ground, I like the use of the white ground, on to which the images and words have been placed. I wondered whether this was a conscious choice to represent the Roman incursions on to a supposed blank landscape? which of course it wasn’t. Or perhaps this was a choice to make the vignettes ‘pop’? Either way, the white ground creates a feeling of starkness. Perhaps a range of coloured grounds could have provided subtle links between the vignettes? Which brings me to the layout and the arrows, which I started following around the image and got myself confused as to where they were going. But I appreciate the non-linear routes that the arrows ascribe and assume that this was deliberate to illustrate the non-linear methods that we can follow to construct narratives about past lives. I rather liked the imperative instruction of some of the words such as ‘TOLERANT’ and ‘REGENERATION’, created using capitalised, colour filled fonts. This reminded me of some ways in which we have constructed and received the Roman presence across the European landmass, as somewhat instructive and imperial. Theirs was a colonising presence, which as we know through present news-grabbing headlines and research, come with complex issues, that cannot be ignored, even in archaeology (Bonacchi et al 2016).

When it comes to the construction of digit-things, fonts form an interesting study in themselves. I wonder if we are beginning to see something of a pattern, perhaps in part, repetitions across digit-things, that have been derived from heritage, archaeology and other disciplinary-aligned projects? There’s something of a preferred choice for cursive fonts like Lucida or Christmas Classica. These handstyle fonts tend to have the opposite effect on me, as they become even more mechanical, rather than reflecting a scribe, their repetition can become generic and something of a logo. Like the echo of a brand, in which we know the colour palette and font, but can’t quite remember the product.

But we should look beyond the fonts themselves and consider the words and their meanings. These are the important messages, which were gathered through the workshops and events as part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh-funded project. Having received funding from this august body myself, I must add that there are fewer and fewer bodies who specifically provide funding for people to gather, share knowledge, think and produce drawings. This type of funding model should be encouraged.

But words themselves, in the abstract, like many other forms of words, such as tags on walls, are a form of language written in codes that are designed through careful practices, executed through craft with tool and colour, and often to be read only by a certain few (Hale 2023). Although the words themselves in the digit-thing by Elise Broccoli can be read, their content, context and full meanings are left partially unsaid. I like this absence of completeness and maybe this was a conscious choice by the illustrator to create a tension between the illustration and the paper, which aims to ‘synthesise them into a coherent narrative’? Perhaps this is the role of the margin between heritage and archaeology, not to be bridged, but to provide a space for ontological speculation through other practices, such as drawing that can provide sentences never fully formed?

I sometimes yearn  for   more    gaps      between      words; the spaces make the words on the page, as much as the words themselves. Whilst we think about the words on a page, I assume that the shape of the overall image was a conscious decision as well by the illustrator. It fits wonderfully on a mobile phone or an iPad in portrait format. Often these layout decisions can be overlooked, unless you have spent time deciding the scale of a survey drawing, to ensure that your finished image will eventually be scaled down and reproduced as an illustration on a page in a publication that has yet to surface. The digital realm poses no such difficulties, it is an endless canvas of possibility at any scale, or is it?

Placing a line on a piece of drawing film, measuring a feature in a trench and converting that, through an appropriate scale to a line on a sheet of graphed paper was never more pertinent to the process of looking/seeing/interpreting and committing to knowledge, through archiving, than now. I say this not to push a drawing agenda per se, but to fulfil our potential as creative beings drawing comes as one of the earliest skills we acquire and should be nurtured throughout our lives. But it is also one that is augmented, potentially enhanced and expanded in the digital realm. Might I suggest that we have a choice whether we draw or not, but that our disciplines are lacking without it, hence my call to say ‘we need drawing’. Rather than consider drawing as a tool and act, could we reposition the practice as integrated into the process of engaging with the past, either through archaeological or heritage approaches? Perhaps we have now come to the point where we realise that we cannot have a past without drawing? (see Wickstead 2013)

As others have argued drawing has become another tool to illustrate the past through both analogue (pencils, pens) and digital tools (iPads etc) (Morgan et al 2021). But I wonder if we instrumentalise drawing in the extractive pursuit of knowledge, and all the problematics that can bring, we could forget how to use the tools and hence lose the skills. Skills which we might enjoy and want to share. Talking of sharing and digital tools do enable us to do so, I wonder if the digital creation of the ‘sketch bridge’ image could be seen as a precursor for more interactivity in the over-arching project. I only mention this for future images because working in the digital realm brings greater interactive potential, that was lacking from analogue drawing.

Emma Dixon and the essays she collected in Vitamin D clearly articulated that the act of drawing and the resultant images create both practices and artefacts or objects in process (Dixon 2005). Similarly, I see these images, such as the ‘sketch-bridge’ not as a single entity, from a workshop or a community engagement event, but as a digit-thing; an artefact excavated and aggregated as (digital) assemblages that can comprise not one, but hundreds, if not thousands of occurrences of siblings. These families begin not only with the first file created, followed by adjusted versions and later iterations of the files, as they are created, changed and worked with, until the published image is completed. But they also include the shadows and echoes of the events that took place before them and led to the words being chosen to describe the thoughts of the participants. Once published, infinite digit-things can appear on multiple devices (poly-spatial) and asynchronously (after Turunen et al 2020). This plethora of digit-things, that are stamped with temporal and spatial metadata act as objects beyond fixed timescales and behave as documents that mark non-linear pathways and are always in process. Because there can be multiple versions of the same object, we have several opportunities to encounter their presence and they can surface in a range of environments. This is exciting, but also brings us into contact with profusion issues and the ongoing debate around what do we select for our archives (Yeo 2019).

As we actively participate in our archives overflowing, including the digit-thing created by Elisa Broccoli as part of the Narratives of Roman Scotland in the Digital Age project, I enjoyed being entangled with the illustration and its intricate weaving of narrative, imperative and disrupted Trajanic column. So, to finish I leave you with a question: if the Roman presence in Scotland was a font, would it be Times New Roman in bold, or are there other ways, like drawing, in all its forms that can help us to soften this depiction of a colonising presence and create expansive stories about the past in the present?

Untiled 03

untitled #03, by Alex Hale


Bonacchi, C., Hingley, R. & Yarrow, T. (2016). Exploring Ancient Identities in Modern Britain. Archaeology International. 19. DOI: 10.5334/ai.1909.

Hale, A. (2023). Graffiti Some Times, in Veerhoven, G. et al Document | Archive | Disseminate Graffiti-Scapes, Proceedings of the goINDIGO 2022 International Graffiti Symposium, p16 - 24.

Hale, A. (2020). By Drawing We Unframe Scotland’s Community Heritage Conference. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 7(1), 4–22

Morgan, C. L., Wright, H. E., Petrie, H., & Taylor, J. S. (2021). Drawing and Knowledge Construction in Archaeology: The Aide Mémoire Project. Journal of Field Archaeology, 46(8), 614-628.

Turunen, J., Čeginskas, V. L.A., Kaasik-Krogerus, S., Lähdesmäki, T. & Mäkinen, K. (2020). Poly-space in Challenges and Solutions on Ethnographic Research DOI: 10.4324/9780429355608-1.

Wickstead, H. (2013) Between the Lines: Drawing Archaeology in Graves-Brown, P., Harrison R., and Piccini, A., (eds.) (2013) The Oxford Companion to the Archaeology of the Contemporary World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 549-564.

Yeo, G. (2018) ‘Can we keep everything? The future of appraisal in a world of digital profusion’, in C. Brown (ed.) Archival Futures. Facet, pp. 45–64.

Cover Image "Image taken from page 41 'John L. Stoddard's Lectures [on his travels] . Illustrated ... with views of the worlds famous places and people, etc' 1877 British Library

Mathead Image Detail from artwork by Elisa Broccoli for the project Narratives of Roman Scotland in the Digital Age.